My first safari, and
we hit the trail in the family car.
Crazy, right? Right.
Here’s what I remember:
Late afternoon, sun washing
over Ceylon plains and golden light
spilling through humid treetops
and I rush to buy park passes.
A driveway loaded with jeeps and
one family’s compact SUV because
we thought we’d save some cash.
minutes later we’re bouncing
over chunks missing from the road, ranger
in the back seat squished between our wives.
All cameras ready and darkening
by the open windows.
Jaliya jerks the wheel
in vain to miss
ruts and pits. We need
to catch elephants before dark.
Motor over a washed-out incline and under
hornet nest gargantuan and find the jungle
gives way to savannah sweeps of green,
a distant lake sitting lord over fields full
of whistling birds and grazing beasts:
the stout buffaloes, the wild hogs, and
the lazing elephants.
Drive us closer, Jaliya. Why not?
A dry creek bed
A gulch, ravine
A tiny family SUV
The ranger shouts in Singhalese
Our nose dips
I turn in time
to see only wide eyes
and flailing hands for handgrips and
I don’t know if
Jaliya was grinning or gasping.
in a pitch like a squall’s catamaran.
and grind the undercarriage.
Shouting now in Singhalese
we rattle and crawl
and can’t stop now or
we’ll get stuck so gun it again and clatter up and
we’re over the gulch
in the family SUV.
And elephants graze, placidly in golden glow of a sun set on simmer,
swishing tufts of long grass they pluck with a ropey trunk
left swish right swish left right swish heavy,
heavy eyes and swish left right and stare dark eyes right
into nothing. A dozen mope along and swish the tufts of grass
then stuff the wadded mass into the triangle jaw.
In the family car,
Sharp words we don’t understand
and no one knows
how bad the car is:
we can’t know can’t
see can’t get
out to check not
till we exit the park.
elephant swish left swish right the giant tufts and stare at us
They swish the grass they pluck
to get the dust off it. Ganga translates
from the back seat. She’s mad.
The sun grows low and splashes gold
on the bull elephant lumbering toward the family SUV.
Jaliya turns to me
“It is very bad.
I’ve torn the bumper apart.”
The bull shoves the mass into mouth
and stares into our cameras. More sharp
words in the sunset as strange birds cry
and words strange to our ears erupt again.
We don’t understand.
The bull is staring still. Andy squirms and clicks more pictures.
Shouldn’t we leave?
The bull is swishing and staring
and lumbering closer. Other jeeps—
proper jeeps—hem us in.
They’re blasting as many
snapshots of our bumper
as of the bull swishing and staring.
she’s closest to the bull
I want to leave
but we can’t because
the other jeeps—
have hemmed us in
and the bull swish swishes
and stares still and chews
in his giant gullet.
Dude your bumper
Someone says from a proper jeep
Jaliya just rolls
up the window
“This may be very bad.”
The gold slowly goes,
replaced by shade and deeper gray
and elephants fade to the night
and drift to the tree line
and we wait for all
the proper jeeps to leave
our family SUV behind.
The ranger rattles long phrases in Singalese
and there’s nothing left to take pictures of
and soon we’re turning too and creeping
behind the jeeps, the proper jeeps whose
bumpers stay straight and in place.
We roll and pitch and approach the gulch
that tore our litte family SUV.
The ranger speaks more and now
Jaliya translates and Ganga protests
and the gulch
looms in front
and the brakes crunch
and we all jump out
to lighten the back axle.
And while Jaliya lurches
again across the gulch,
we are a moment alone,
unprotected in the plain
and nothing between me and wild
I breathe all around
in the quickening dark—
the thick soil set aside for preserving life,
the soil where my kind is a designed stranger,
where primal life running rampant
by design and I stand on the strands
of green blades to be swished and chewed
and given to churning cells in animal bodies
and this is highly illegal—
the ranger has told us
we can’t step outside our machines.
It’s only a moment
but one I can’t stop breathing
Even as Jaliya raises the family
SUV on the far side of the steep gulch
and the ranger is shouting in his strange
words and we scramble to fill the doors
and rumble off over pitching
paths following dust of the jeeps—yes
the proper jeeps—on our way out the park.
We leave a tip for the ranger who seems disappointed
and our journey away, in headlights and sleepy eyes,
is quiet, all too quiet, and all
my mind keeps spinning through
is that moment
alone and surrounded
by nothing and by everything—
the safari of the crazy, right?